Tag Archives: women

My Complements…

The good folks at Christians for Biblical Equality provided me with a copy of N. T. Wright’s 2004 talk, “Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church.”

Wright introduces his talk by making some observations as an “outsider” to the American Evangelical way of framing the issue and holding the debate. In particular, Wright hesitates about the language we’ve adopted to demarcate our “sides.”

“Complement is too good a word to concede to the other side.”

That was the heart of his concern.

Women should be admitted to the ministry, not on the grounds that in all things they are the same as men, but on the grounds that in many ways we evidence tendencies toward difference.

The presence of both is what makes the church stronger.

Unifying Spirit

Last week I tied together some reflections on Pentecost with the ongoing discussions about women in ministry.

I got questions from two different sides but pushing on the same point of my exposition. Some saw the passage in Acts, or my reading of it, as an indication that we shouldn’t ordain anyone others that we should ordain everyone.

Or, to paraphrase a Facebook comment: “Every good complementarian thinks that women can have the Spiritual gift of prophecy, you haven’t made any argument for women’s ordination yet.”

So how is it that the gift of the Spirit to all, and the gifts of speaking for God in particular being given to all, constitutes an argument for women’s ordination. Why should we be willing to ordain anyone we baptize?

The argument that reception of the Spirit, and being baptized into Christ, delineates the boundaries of who might serve in pastoral or other leadership capacities, becomes compelling as we recognize the place that this reception of the Spirit and baptism into Christ holds in Paul’s arguments in Galatians and 1 Corinthians (in particular).

In both Galatians and 1 Corinthians, common reception of the Spirit and common baptism into Christ disclose the gospel-denying implications of discriminating within the Body of Christ.

In Galatians, Paul is confronting the idea that Gentiles, outsiders to the Jewish story, have to become Jewish in order to become fully part of the people of God. Sure, they can be in as Gentiles, but they are not treated equally.

Paul appeals to the common reception of the Spirit: you received the Spirit already, so why turn to something else as though it will make you perfect?

But here’s the thing: we have too little realized that Galatians is not merely about “soteriology,” how we are saved in Jesus. It is about this.

But it is about soteriology because Paul wants to convince them that their ecclesial practice must be different.

Paul is not trying to get the Galatians to change their theology only. He is working over their theology to show them that they are making evil, destructive distinctions among themselves.

To receive the Spirit is to be equal within the body. And if we, in our churches, make distinctions in our practices and positions based on anything other than the Spirit’s initiation, gifting, and calling, we are denying the Gospel.

The indicative of how we enter (baptism into Christ by the Spirit) determines the imperative of how we act (discriminating what people may do solely by the Spirit’s gifting).

In 1 Corinthians these dynamics are even clearer. The church is falling from its confession of the crucified Christ by perpetuating society’s differentiations and hierarchies in the body.

And make no mistake: in the ancient world, gender was not merely a question of differentiation, it was also a question of hierarchy. Men were regarded as better than women.

Paul deconstructs the Corinthians’ practice (ecclesiology) by extended appeals to the gospel and how they are saved (soteriology) as well as the way that the Spirit works among them (pneumatology).

In short, when we uphold the differentiations of society, rather than embracing the unity of the Spirit, we deny the work of God, the judgment of God, and the gospel itself.

Why is Pentecost significant?

Not because it tells us who we should ordain.

It is significant because it shows us that the gift of the Spirit is a democratizing, unifying, and transcending bestowal. God judges all as members of the body, and gives to each, as the Spirit will, or as the Lord Jesus will (Eph 4) according to his good pleasure.

If we demand that the gifting and calling fall along the lines of differentiation that demarcate first creation, if we say that only men can teach or preach, only men can lead and rule, we cling to societal differentiations that the Spirit of God has transcended.

We deny the work of the Spirit, and misjudge the body of Christ.

The Story of the church is always supposed to narrate what is most true about us as God’s people: not only that we are God’s in Christ, but how we are God’s in Christ (we live a cruciform life as a cross-saved people); not only that we are one in Christ, but how we are one in Christ (the Spirit poured out on all irrespective of gender, ethnicity, social status).

We faithfully live our our story when we display in our practice the reality of who we are at the core of our identity. As those marked by the Spirit without regard to gender, we must also faithfully steward the gifts Christ by the Spirit has given to the church without regard to gender.

Life-Giving Widow

The Freely-Given Life

On several occasionsI’ve reflected on the nameless woman who anoints Jesus in Mark 14. She is unique in that Jesus promises that her deed of burial-preparation / anointing will be told everywhere the gospel is proclaimed.

Why remember her?

It seems that she alone, of all the characters in the story, has held together “anointed one” with “the one who must die.”

Another word of approbation is given to a woman a couple chapters before. She, too, is nameless.

It is the widow who gives her own 2 cents.

Her presence here is double-edged, without a doubt. The scribes have just been accused of devouring widows houses. Enter the widow. Behold how she has put in her whole livelihood.

Check that.

She has put in her whole life (ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς).

Why would Jesus draw attention to this one person, of all the people in the gospel, and point to her as an example of discipleship? Why is she the great positive example who puts to shame all the others who are giving to God’s work?

Perhaps because in giving her life she has executed faithfully the sacrifice that Jesus lauds in ch. 8:

After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. (Mark 8:34-36, CEB)

She has given her life. She has not clung to it.

Unlike the rich man who cannot part with his wares, and unlike these rich who give from the overflow, she has given all.

Yes, she is consumed by the scribes who devour widows’ houses.

But then again, such forces lay behind Jesus’ own cross as well.

A Time to Speak

“Sometimes silence is golden. Sometimes, it’s just plain yella‘.”

That one-liner is one of my a summary takeaways from this weekend’s Christians for Biblical Equality conference in Houston.

The gathering was a multifaceted engagement with God’s calling of women into all ministries of the church: there was teaching, digging into scripture, and, perhaps most importantly, a lot of storytelling.

Women in many parts of the church are told, through word and deed, that they are not needed for the church’s work. Not only are they in denominations that will not ordain them, they are in worship services where women will never be able to read scripture or preside at the table or, in some places, take the offering.

Dear everyone: this destroys women.

Listen to the stories of women who have had to fight to find a calling. Or the stories of those who have given up.

It forces them to live in denial of the calling that God issues in Christ as the Spirit of Christ gifts women to preach and teach and pastor. It is the ear saying to the eye, “I have no need of you.”

Dear everyone: this impoverishes the whole church.

Dear men, it is not enough to be supportive in your hearts. If your church is excluding women from service, you need to be creating opportunities to overturn that practice.

You need to speak. You need to ask.

Dear pastor, it is not enough to huddle with your buddies over beer or in your internet discussion room and talk about what a bunch of sexist bastards your fellow pastors are in your denomination.

If you are not working to change what women can do, you are promoting and sustaining the sexism that you deride in private.

If you are not opening up space in your church for women to preach and teach, you are promoting and sustaining the sexism that denies the truth of your women’s identity in Christ.

Dear seminary professor, your job is to be a change agent. Your job is to transform the way that your students, and their churches, think about and act on issues of gender.

It’s not enough to “know” that women should be able to do anything. You need to show your students, from your scripture study or theology, that this is God’s intention for the church.

It is not enough to theorize about it in the classroom, either, especially if folks at your church listen to you.

Having secret friends who will not act creates little more than a secret consolation that will not comfort.

One of the reasons that Christians for Biblical Equality is so important is that it is reminding those of us whose worlds have “settled” the question that there are still thousands of churches where women are not being treated as equals. We need to continue to speak, we need to continue to agitate for change.

And this means men in positions of authority in particular. If you are a pastor, this means you. If you are a professor this means you. If you are an elder or deacon, this means you.

It is on us, inasmuch as God has entrusted the church to his people and we are called to be faithful in it and act to conform it to God’s will.

We must create the kind of church that will receive not just our sons but our daughters, not just our brothers but our sisters, in the fullness of who God is making them to be, in Christ, by the Spirit.

If you believe in women’s equality, your calling is to act it out. If you’re not, don’t convince yourself that you’re being “wise” in biding your time while your sisters suffer. Wisdom is a convenient cover for fear, but not all silence is golden.

Houston Conference

This weekend! If you’re in or around Houston, TX, I’d love to see you at the Christians for Biblical Equality conference !

My talk, “Walking by the Light of New Creation’s Dawn,” will be working out the importance of finding our place as participants in the New Creation when dealing with issues of gender in the church.

You can register here.

Imaging the Biblical God

Rachel Held Evans has drawn attention to John Piper’s recent declarations that Christianity has a masculine feel, and that this is, of course, great news for everyone–even women, whose feminine feel isn’t, apparently, part of what God intended for Christianity.

Piper’s point is that God intentionally depicted Himself in masculine imagery, and that this sets the character for what Christianity is: God is Father and Son, God is King not queen.

In this post I want to outline some ways that scripture leads us to see that Piper’s view is selective to the point of being misleading. Tomorrow I want to tackle a much more serious issue: the way that Piper reads the Gospels as underpinning his theology demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the stories themselves.

The very first indication we get in scripture of how the nature of God maps onto human gender is Genesis 1. When God creates humanity in God’s own image, we read, “Male and female he created them.”

This is significant for two reasons. First, in what is the clearest connection of God to human gender, perhaps the only clear and intentional such connection in all of scripture, it is both male and female, together, who mirror God to the world.

This means that a “masculine” church or a church with a “masculine feel” is inherently lacking in its ability to reflect the image of God to the world.

But Genesis 1 isn’t simply about “being like” God in some general way.

To bear the image of God is to be the person to whom God has entrusted the rule of the world on God’s behalf. The purpose of humanity, “Let them rule the world on our behalf,” is inseparable from the categorization of these creatures as those made “in the image of God.”

In other words: it is not merely as humans that we reflect God together as male and female, but as those who rule over the world as male and female we bear the image of God. The kind of rule God has in mind is not a “masculine” rule, but a masculine plus feminine, male plus female, rule. Only this kind of shared participation in representing God’s reign to the world is capable of doing justice to the God whose image we bear.

Another dynamic of God, as God is reflected in the story of ancient Israel, is worth considering. As a religion without official goddesses, it falls to the one God to do the typically “feminine” duty of ensuring fertility.

In the ancient world, where being a woman was specially tied to bearing, nurturing, and rearing children, feminine images of God (and, of course, goddesses) were often tied to either literal or figurative bearing and nurturing of a people and/or of children.

This may lend some credibility to the idea that when the OT speaks of God as El-Shaddai. Although this is sometimes translated “God almighty,” other options have been suggested, including “God of the mountain.” But it’s worth noting that El-Shaddai is a term that appears in tandem with the covenant blessing of seed, offspring.

In Gen 17:1, God self-identifies as El-Shaddai and then institutes the covenant of circumcision which is tied to the covenant promise of offspring. Why does Genesis 35:11 say, “I am El-Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply” (cf. Gen 28:3)? Why this title for the God of fruitfulness and multiplication?

It has been argued that El-Shaddai is less a reference to God as all-powerful and more a reference to God as the one who grants fertility.

Genesis 49:25 reads:

by God, your father, who supports you,
by the Almighty (shaddai) who blesses you
with blessings from the skies above
and blessings
from the deep sea below,
blessings from breasts (shadayim) and womb.

It has been argued that Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word for breasts. Although alternative translation of “shaddai” has been “God of the mountains”–as someone who lives in a city with “twin peaks,” it seems to me that the options of “God of the mountains” and “God of the breasts” are not mutually exclusive.

In Gen 49:25 we may very well have an intentional juxtaposition of God as Father and God as nursing mother. The God of Israel is the God of womb and breast as much as this is the God of war and rain.

El Shaddai is the God who makes God’s people fruitful and multiples them. This is the God of fertility.

Good on the bra, but more "mountains" needed...

And so, when we see the Son appear in all His glory in Revelation, we are, perhaps, not entirely surprised to find this:

“His breasts are girt up with a golden girdle” (Revelation 1:13)

Ok, we are surprised to find it. So surprised, in fact, that the translations won’t have it! But mastoi are breasts. (Thanks are due to Jesse Rainbow for his article on the Son of Man’s breasts in JSNT 30 [2007] 249-53.) The great warrior king of Revelation? It’s the Son of Man, prepared to be nursing mother.

So when Paul says that he and his fellow apostles were present among the Thessalonians like a nurse or mother, perhaps we should understand that there is something distinctly “feminine” about leading the church of God. And, that this femininity is part of what it means to bear the image of God and manifest the presence of Christ.

Who is the Father of our Bible? Who is the Son? It is not only the king and conqueror, but the nurturer and nourisher, the one who cares for and holds close. Not only (I should say, stereotypically) “masculine” but also the (stereotypically) feminine.

It is the God who is only rightly and fully imaged as male and female. Together.

What’s On Your Plate?

Slowing the blogging pace and stepping back for a week or two over the holidays, I started to think about what streams of conversation are flowing with particular force these days.

Over the past couple of years there have been emergent or missional conversations that always provided ready fodder for conversation. But those streams have largely dried up as ever-present conversation pieces.

Here are a couple of things that strike me as continuing points of interest as I scan the blogosphere. But I’d also love to hear from you: what are you thinking about and finding yourself in vigorous conversation about as you strive to work out what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus in 2012?

  1. The Gospel. I know that sounds rather broad and… well… settled, but here’s what I mean: in the more or less evangelical circles in which I run, we are finding a good deal of traction in conversations that press us to articulate a holistic gospel that affirms the “spiritual” dynamics of a restored relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus while also affirming that the spiritual work of being at work in the world for the good of all God’s creatures is integral to the faith.

    Recent books by Scot McKnight, Tom Wright, and yours truly are all working to contribute to such a recalibration of the evangelical gospel, that has been too long denying what it should have been affirming (in many circles). The gospel is good news for the whole world.

  2. Human origins after evolution. As denial of evolution becomes a rallying cry for both religiously and politically conservative movements, it moves certain brands of Christianity into more of a backwater. Too many Christians now have too much education for this non-viable position to continue to hold sway among thoughtful evangelicals.

    But, this means that we are confronted with a monumental task. And here is where the conservatives are right: to affirm evolution entails a reconfiguring of the narrative of humanity in significant ways. What can Christians say about the significance of humanity’s place in the cosmos once the story of evolution displaces the story of one-off creation? What can be retained? What must be replaced? Pete Enns’ book, and the interest it is generating even prior to publication, is one piece of bookish evidence about the continuing significance of this issue.

  3. Gender in the church. Here’s one for which I have no direct evidence in terms of tell-tale books. (I apologize.) But, with the continuing surge of the neo-Reformed movement, there has been a concomitant surge theological conviction about male dominance of the church.

What do you think? Are these issues the ones that are active points of conversation in your world? Are there others? I started to wonder if “what the Bible is” might not be another significant point where evangelicals are entering a new place (cf. Christian Smith’s, The Bible Made Impossible), and if folks find themselves increasingly in conversations about sex and sexuality?


Women: Directives and Praxis

A few days ago I did my usual falling behind in responding to blog comments, but didn’t want a query about women as deacons, preachers, and apostles in the NT to go unanswered, so here it is.

The claim I made there, and want to rehearse here, is that the practices of women’s participation in the early church demonstrate that the directives against their speaking, teaching, did not regulate women’s actual practice in the first century.

The most important passage to assess is 1 Tim 2:11-12:

A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. (NET)

Notice that the woman is required to be quiet. And she is forbidden from doing two things: teaching and exercising authority over men.

If this is a binding rule for all churches, then there should be no women speaking in public worship (let’s restrict it to worship just to keep the bar moderately high, even though this isn’t explicitly stated in the text); there should be no women teaching men (let’s make it harder on ourselves and say, “no teaching men about the things of God”); and no woman should be in a position of leadership authority (again, we’ll add “in the church” to make it harder on ourselves).

Let’s pile on a bit more. Here’s the other important passage, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.

Once again, the prohibition is stark: women must be silent in church. Here the context is explicit.

What this means is that any indication that the apostles knew about and promoted or otherwise endorsed either women speaking in church, or women teaching men, or women exercising authority in the church–any one of these will falsify the apparently universal applicability of the prohibitions that have traditionally served to restrict church leadership to men.

1 Corinthians itself undermines the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a universally applicable norm.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells women who prophecy in church how to conduct themselves appropriately. In other words, they were not silent in church, and Paul didn’t think they always should be.

This also means that the regulation in 1 Timothy 2 that women keep quiet was not universally practice–not even in the Pauline churches.

Romans 16 becomes significant inasmuch as it demonstrates not only that women were actively involved in Paul’s mission (co-workers and the like), but that, specifically, a woman was a deacon (Phoebe in 16:1) and also an apostle (Junia in 16:7). In other words, whatever “authority” there was in the church, there were women who were holding such positions of leadership.

It is against such stark prohibitions that the role of Priscilla as an instructor of Apollos becomes significant. Here again is a woman doing exactly what she should not do if 1 Tim 2 is normative across the practice of the early church.

So what do we do with this ambivalent data–data that one the one hand vehemently objects to women speaking and teaching and leading, and data that on the other hand assumes that these things are happening and that for the good of the church?

Two different things. First, there is a text critical issue in 1 Cor 14. Why does Paul seem to contradict himself between women speaking in ch. 11 and mandating silence in ch. 14? Gordon Fee has argued that the verses in ch. 14 were added by a later scribe, and this has won wide-spread approval.

That leaves us with 1 Tim 2.

There are various ways we might go with this verse. It is part of our canon. But it seems to me that the way that is closed to us is enforcing it universally across our churches. This was not done in the NT, by the apostles and their communities, and it should not be done in ours.

The text might indicate that there was a particular issue that demanded a particular course of action to correct an abuse; it might indicate that there are times or cultural contexts when concessions need to be made rather than clinging to the ideal of equality.

But practice is instructive as we look to apply the imperatives. If we are looking to the NT to set the trajectories for the church into our day, the actual practices of Paul and his churches must not be rendered silent by one post-Pauline imperative.

Wisdom of Deborah and Folly of the Cross

So yesterday I had my little grump moment about Deborah as an example of God using a woman in the leadership of God’s people. The reading I gave there was a historical reading of sorts: attempting to read the story within its original contexts of an irony-laden book written within a partriarchal culture.

But as I interacted with the posts yesterday I also started pondering the implications of Christian hermeneutics for this story. What difference would it make if we read the Deborah story in step with the New Testament’s hermeneutics of christological revisionism?

Judges depicts not only the folly of people who have gone their own ways, but also the God who works to deliver a people who have turned aside to foolishness and idolatry–through foolish and idolatrous people, often enough.

If we place the book of Judges on a grid of wisdom and folly, assessing its various characters by such a standard, we see a great deal of folly: deadly follies of rashness and rage, weak follies of cowardice and passion.

But we also see God at work in just these sorts of foolish people.

From the perspective of those who have been saved by the cross of Christ, we can reassess what the author of Judges scorned. While not celebrating the human folly that leads to death, we do celebrate the God who chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

The very grace of God that is at work to save through the murderous rage of God’s own people in cahoots with the nations is the grace at work to save through the Deborahs and Jaels and Baraks and Sampsons and Gideons. A people saved by the cross of Christ celebrate none other than the God who saves through what humanity can only call foolishness, weakness, and death.

The judgment of the writer of Judges is not the last word to be passed on Israel’s history. Another word of revelation from God gives us more to say.

And in this cruciform context we have something to say about Deborah that the writer of Judges did not have to say: what you intended as judgment, God intended for blessing; what you intended as folly, God puts forth as divine power. The grace of God by which a woman is chosen and empowered to lead, putting the wise and powerful to shame, is less to shame the men into taking the roles they should, but to humble us at the saving grace of God who chooses those whom we would not, who chooses the means that we would not, who transforms our folly into the very wisdom of God.

So, in the end, can Deborah help the cause of women’s full participation in the leadership of the church? Yes, I think so, but we should use her with an awareness that such use is deeply conditioned by a prior commitment about the cross of Christ and its impact on our reading of scripture and its importance for interpreting everything that pertain to the life of the church.

In confessing the wisdom of God in the crucified Christ we turn all the world’s value systems on their heads–even those that wrote the part of a woman as though it were folly, rather than recognizing in it the very wisdom of God.